1. Tell us about yourself.
My name is Eric Mullen. I was born in Winona and lived here till I was 11, but then moved away for a couple of years because my mom got a different job. I used to come to meet my grandparents and so got snapshots of Winona a couple times a year. I came back to Winona in the fall of 2015 to go to university for a business administration degree. I love cooking and business.
2. You’re the owner of The Garage Co-work Space, so what is a co-work space? And what influenced you to create such a space?
I started The Garage Co-work Space in Winona in fall of 2018. It was going pretty well for a brand new business, and kinda at the same time, the opportunity for opening up a restaurant in Winona came up. So, to manage both of them, I actually dropped out. I was supposed to do a 5-year program of which I only completed 4 years.
Co-work space is shared office space but more. If you think of an office space, you have the landlord and you have the tenants. The landlords don’t always care about the tenants apart from their timely payments. But people in a co-work space helps businesses develop how they can because they understand that the more businesses succeed, the more everyone succeeds as a whole. So, what makes a co-work space different from an office is that it provides business resources, networking opportunities, and things like that. Another step further for a co-work space is an incubator space where a lot of the time, the operator will actually take a small share in the business in lieu of rent payments to help the business start and get off the ground.
3. What are the benefits of using a co-work space? Does it help with time management and productivity?
The benefits are the ability to collaborate with other people that aren’t necessarily your direct competition. If you were starting a software-based business, and worked at a co-workspace, you’d be doing your software-related stuff whereas there could be someone else working on his one. So, you could just ask for advice and help, and a lot of times, they happen with regular transactions of money or mutual services.
So, a co-work space brings a lot of different organizations under one roof. And recently I learned a new metaphor, “pizza by the slice”; a cowork space is office by the slice. Everyone pays for what they need, for their own space, for that one slice and not the entire office.
4. How do you encourage people to use The Garage Cowork Space as an alternative to traditional workspaces?
It’s really a point of education because co-working space isn’t a new concept, it is new verbiage for a familiar concept. And so, it is entertaining people on exactly what we just talked about. We tell people what co-work space is and what its benefits are, such as reduced rent expenses and networking opportunities.
It’s not for everybody. If you’re someone who needs complete silence to work, co-working may not be ideal for you, because it is a shared office space. The Garage is working to try and offer more private offices to be a little more welcoming to the people needing privacy and a quite office.
If you’re someone who is in the initial stages of starting a business, you’d find many other people in the co-work space who are going through the same phases as you. There are conversations on mental health issues amongst the entrepreneurs and a lot of that comes from the fact that a lot of people still don’t know or completely understand the struggles. People discuss navigating America on federal and local levels, like complicated tax systems, accounting, etc. Not everyone can hire all the experts to do all of these things, and co-work spaces help to create support systems.
5. Can you walk us through some of the obstacles you had to overcome during the initial stages of your start-up?
I’d say it’s not really any different than most businesses, it’s not knowing what you don’t know. On top of that, when the Garage opened, I was only 21 years old and I didn’t know much about life including businesses, haha! It’s a steep learning curve when you do your first business. A lot of entrepreneurs talk about how awful it was when they first started theirs, referring to all the mistakes that they had made.
We opened the Garage, not really knowing the demand for office space. We just had a completely open concept of a traditional workspace layout. Another point is we have found out a lot people want privacy or added security, want everything of theirs to be locked behind a door. This is certainly a valid concern but, November is our 2-year anniversary, and no situation has arisen where someone stole or lost anything at The Garage.
When we were planning, before we opened the doors, we talked with operators of other co-working spaces in the area too, discussing what we need to do, be aware of, and things like that. Even with all
their experience, we can’t talk about everything that could ever happen; not to mention we are in a different city than they are, we are going to face similar but different challenges. Starting a your first
business ever is going to be miserable but you just have to do it, and learn from your own experiences, so that if you do a relaunch of the business or open a second, you’d do significantly better than you did
the first time as you’d have gained all of this knowledge and understanding of anything and everything that you didn’t previously understand. The second business will still be miserable but if you learned anything it should be moderately better than the first.
6. What are your thoughts on WeWork and how do you think that affects your business?
I think what happened was absolutely ridiculous because if I were to have found myself in that situation, having hundreds of thousands of coworking-space, I hope I could have handled it better. My understanding is that a lot of their financial issues came from lack of responsibility, with the CEO spending too much money on himself rather than on things related to the business.
If you take away all the issues that were directly tied to their CEO, there are a number of things to take away and learn from WeWork… They are kind of the industry standard and price setter for a lot of large metropolitan areas. There is also a big divide between them and The Garage just due to scale of business and resources; much in the same way a small online retail store can learn from Amazon but it is also not quite the same just because there is so much difference in their sizes and capabilities.
7. How have you adapted your businesses to meet the challenges created by COVID-19? And moving forward, do you have plans to expand?
To be honest, we were very blindsided by the pandemic… We got hit pretty hard and were pretty slow to adapt, relative to a lot of other organizations. COVID really hit Winona in late mid-late March and we did not hold our first online event until June or July I believe… On a small business scale I would say that is pretty slow…
For the progression after that, I’d say The Garage, regardless of COVID happening or not, is in a get-out or double-down crossroad. We’re certainly leaning towards the double-down route and recently hired a Communications Director to oversee all of the various outlets of The Garage, including emails and social medias, and engage with the community after so many months of disappearance.
My hope and plan is that we can not just return to normal, as we were before COVID, I want to use this as an opportunity to rethink and develop the business; so on the other side of this we can be better off than we were before.
One major aspect of how we are wanting to grow and continue to develop the business is by improving our physical amenities and offerings. We currently offer one conference room and only one private office; the new space I am looking at would be able to offer two conference rooms, some office suites and eight private offices. We are currently in a space that is about 1,700 and want to move to a space that is about 5,000 sqft.
8. Do you see cowork spaces becoming more commonplace in the future?
I think the pandemic could affect co-workspaces in 2 ways:
i) People will realize how much they hate being at home 24/7 and need a change of environment – it would benefit co-workspaces.
ii) People understand the value of working from home and being in their own bubble. And so, they’ll start to feel that co-workspaces just have too much liability to their health – This would greatly hurt cowork spaces.
It will really come down to the mental state of people and how safe they feel around others. I am confident there will be a mix of these two ideas and coworking will continue as a viable business.
9. Where do you envision The Garage Cowork Space in 5 years?
If we move next year, we’ll be talking about a 5-year lease, and so, it really depends on how that space works out. In 5 years, my hope is we’d be able purchase an office building because one of the downfalls
on the administrative or financial side of The Garage was the initial investment being way too low and we’ve been renting this whole time. The basic transactions of renting out a space and subletting to our members provide fairly thin margins. If you own the place of your cowork space, it changes the dynamic tremendously. You can do everything yourself and don’t have to depend on the landlord. The Garage would no longer be a middleman, we would provide the office space ourselves rather than renting it.
I still encourage interested and passionate people to open a cowork space but, I advise that if your initial investment isn’t large enough to buy the space you are operating out of your margins are extremely thin and extremely hard to operate on.
10. Alongside your Cowork Space business, what was your inspiration behind opening a Sicilian themed bakery-café? Tell us about Sapori di Sicilia and how you choose the name.
Starting from juggling school, work and extra-curricular mixed with managing my CoWork space, the inspiration actually came from lack of experience and a mistake on my part. I had received an opportunity to open up a restaurant in Winona, for which I did not have the right experiences. So the idea of an Italian themed restaurant came up and I had to figure out how to run it. I was working on opening my second business before my first business actually opened. I think it’s a massive mistake to undertake something like that but both opportunities were impossible to say no to and so I didn't really have a choice. If someone offers you the opportunity of a lifetime while you’re already in the first opportunity of a lifetime, you just can’t say ‘no’. You say ‘yes’ and wait for the third one, haha!
I never liked baking because you have to be precise and actually measure ingredients. I was into home cooking, like making tomato sauce where you just add a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Baking doesn’t work like that; it feels more science-based than just doing what you want. I was talking with the Dean of the School of Business, Dr. Hamid Akbari about what I should do to gain the experience for doing this. And I always wanted to go to Italy and I always used to say this, not really as a joke, but like “What if I have to go to Italy for this?” and Dr. Hamid said “Oh, yes you need to go to Italy. It'll be great and stuff.” and i was like “Yeah, right. How on Earth am I going to pay for a trip to Italy? I do not have any money and am trying to start two businesses and work part time jobs.” So, the dean decided to help me do some fundraising where he himself paid for some of my travelling expenses so that I don’t miss out on this opportunity.
So, I got my trip to Italy figured out, but I had not figured out my internship in Italy, like how I would find a reputable bakery that actually knows what they are doing and could teach me. I reached out to Professor Borsari from the Biology department because he was born in Bologna, Italy. He had connected me with the bakery association of Bologna, and I had met with the president of the bakery association of Bologna to discuss travel arrangements. Continuing with the travel plan, I had never left the country before and never travelled all by myself - I was doing both of these things for the first time in my life through this trip. Then I got to Bologna after having some flight issues on Wednesday and wrote to the organization on Friday saying that I arrived. A woman responded to me saying the travel agent was not authorized to make any arrangements and that I would have to return.
After a long tug-of-war, I was referred to an English speaking baker. I went there and talked to them for a little bit and it didn’t really seem like it was going work out with them. They were nice but it was just a gut feeling that it was not going to work out. While all this was going on, in America, my mom posted a high school foreign exchange student. She was from Germany, but she became best friends with another foreign exchange student from Sicily. She helped her by getting her acquainted and situated in America and stuff like that. So, this Sicilian mother was grateful to my mom and they got into talking and my mom mentioned that I’m going be in Italy. Then the Sicilian mom said that “Oh, if Eric’s going be in Italy he has to come and visit us. You have helped our daughter so much, we want to help him in any way we can even if it’s just showing him our town” and stuff like that.
I got to Sicily on Saturday, and on Monday, I started to work in a Sicilian bakery where I then worked for almost three months as that bakery in Bologna never wrote to me. I worked there from about anywhere from 2 to 4 in the morning and until 9am or all the way to 1 in the afternoon - just depending on what we had to make that day and what the workload was. If we worked faster, we could leave faster.
So, it was because of my lack of experience, terrible planning, and the bakery not working out that I ended up in Sicily and fell in love with Sicily, Sicilian food, and Sicilian culture and the restaurant became Sicilian themed. It’s a very long story to answer your question about why the restaurant is Sicilian themed - it’s because I accidentally ended up in Sicily for three months and then I went back in the month of September 2019 to continue doing some more work and stuff.
That is all on how I made the Sicilian theme the main focus. And the name directly translates to “Flavors of Sicily”.
11. What influenced your cooking style, and do you experiment with other styles and cuisines?
For the last couple of months, I’ve begun experimenting a little bit with Asian foods. I am making food like bao ban in a steamer and stuff like that. I make the dough, I make the filling. And in the last couple of weeks, I made sushi for the first time. But one thing is that it’s hard to experiment with those types of foods because we don’t have grocery stores which supply that stuff. For seaweeds and even sometimes sushi rice, I have to go to Amazon and order the ingredients that are nonperishable.
12. Were there any challenges you faced with launching Sapori di Sicilia? What is your vision with Sapori di Sicilia?
The challenge is that we’re not open yet. We are planning to open in early November. We are working on some last-minute micro-changes in construction. A major challenge has been the constant delay. And it’s a multi-used 3/4 story building and because of the scale of the project, some construction had to move around. The commercial tenants of the buildings were put through the back while they finished this up and there was a very small, chartered school in the block. Now there are only apartments in the higher levels and so they need to get those two things done for the commercial part.
The delay has been my biggest challenge. But recently, there have been delays related to supply chains affected by COVID-19. That is also getting fairly frustrating, and it’s nothing anyone can do anything about when trying to open a brand-new business during a pandemic.
13. Do you want to expand into other cuisines and service types?
Yes, I do. One thing that I really want to try and emulate is the restaurant network model that a lot of restaurant stars and restaurants operators do where they begin several different food businesses which are all complementary to one another, creating a web of extremely interconnected restaurants. Right now, this is a bakery cafe where we are making homemade gelato, homemade breads, homemade pasta, homemade sauce, and homemade pastry. I still don’t know what my next business is going to be. If I open a third business, I will analyze the situation to determine in which direction that needs to go. Let’s just say, if the next one works out to be a coffee shop, a more focused coffee shop, what I would do is interconnect the bakery cafe and the coffee shop and turn that coffee shop more into a roast house, dedicated specifically to coffee. The roast house will roast the coffee for in-house customers and then that would be the supplier for Sapori di Sicilia, and Sapori di Sicilia, on the back end, will supply the roast house with pastries and breads. So, each business will be making money off a regular walking customer but on the back end they are exchanging their specialties and their goods at cost.
Then eventually, another step would be another food business based on meats, because right now Winona does not have any actual animal processing butchering shops. That makes it extremely difficult for inclusivity in a community, in my opinion. Of course, a butcher shop based in America is going to offer the traditional American and European based meat but that is not what the rest of the world eats necessarily. Not having a full processing butcher shop means that we can’t get whatever cuts we want. If a Nigerian immigrant to America wanted to come into any meat place and said, “We make these traditional foods, traditional roasts out of beef, can I get it from you?” The butcher shop has to say no. But if you were to go to a place that actually processes the animals, as long as you give them a day’s notice, they can get you whatever you want as long as it comes from an animal they are supplied with.
What actually sucks in this case would be the traditional cuts. What is possible is anything from a cow, a chicken, a sheep that they are supplied with. If you let them know before they cut it, they can cut it specifically for that individual. It actually ends up broadening the horizons of what is possible. Then they would provide Sapori di Sicilia and the roast house with meat at costs. So, I am helping to manage my own food cost by cutting a middleman but also ensuring that each business is able to be hyper focused in their specialty and maintain high quality products at a low cost because there are no middlemen.